If there’s one thing the Coen Bros. know how to do very well, it’s creating a slice-of-life portrait of unique and fascinating characters. For the most part, we find these characters caught up in extraordinary circumstances, such as going on the run with a lot of money (“No Country for Old Men”), investigating a murder in what is normally a peaceful town (“Fargo”), or going on a quest for revenge (“True Grit”). However, for their latest project, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” they have decided to take a slight detour from the usual eccentricity of their plots to bring us something much more down to Earth.
The film follows a week in the life of a folk singer, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), as he tries to make his way in the music business in 1961 New York City. He floats from friend’s house to friend’s house, crashing on couches, and playing gigs whenever he can get them, but success continues to elude him. Along the way, we meet several characters that make up the fascinating tapestry of his everyday life, including an ex-girlfriend (Carey Mulligan), a fellow musician and songwriter (Justin Timberlake), his manager (Jerry Grayson), an intellectual friend who takes him in on occasion (Ethan Phillips), and a pair of strangers who help get him to Chicago (Garrett Hedlund and John Goodman). Living life from moment to moment the way he does, he never knows what to expect, but that doesn’t stop him from soldiering on in hopes of finally achieving his career goals.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is basically made up of a series of vignettes as Llewyn goes about his daily life meeting these characters that each have their own little quirks. His ex-girlfriend, Jean, is extremely upset with him and even notifies him that she’s pregnant, leading him to have to arrange an abortion for her. His manager, Mel, isn’t doing him much good on the business side of things, which pretty much leads him to hunt down his own gigs. His usual spot is a club called “The Gaslight,” but every now and again, he gets a recording gig, such as the one he gets performing with his colleague Jim. Eventually his journey puts him on the road to Chicago where he meets the highly-opinionated Roland Turner and his driver, the soft-spoken Johnny Five. After attempting to land representation with a better agent, Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), his journey brings him right back to New York City.
As far as a plot goes, there isn’t much of one to be had, but that doesn’t stop the film from being an enjoyable experience. As you see the hardship that Llewyn has to put up with every day just to try and find his next gig, you can’t help but root for him. Then, of course, there’s the eccentric group of people he meets along the way that keep the story on a role. As the film goes from one character to the next, you begin to wonder just how much weirder his acquaintances can get, from his good friends to another musician he meets from the military to his unusual traveling companions.
They’re basically there to act as connecting tissue for the various songs that are performed throughout the film, which are another of its highlights. I’m not normally a fan of folk music such as this, but some of the songs are quite beautiful. There’s even a comedic song thrown in for the recording session that Llewyn has with Jim called “Please Mr. Kennedy,” where the lyrics plead with the president not to send them into space. It’s doubtful you’ll be humming any of the songs afterward, but, if anything, they really help set the melancholy mood of the film.
The one major drawback of having a film structured like this is that it becomes somewhat forgettable in the long run. It’s still a good film, but you begin to wish that there was a little more to it, more of the eccentricity that we normally find in a Coen Bros. film, rather than just some interesting characters and a few good songs. As I mentioned earlier, this is a much more down to Earth film that couldn’t really be more straightforward. There are moments of dry humor, such as a subplot where Llewyn loses and tries to find his friend’s cat, to help it along as well, but what one will more than likely remember more than anything is the ensemble that brings all of these oddball characters to life. While it may not be one of the Coen Bros.’ more memorable efforts, that’s usually one thing you can count on from them, in addition to their top-notch direction.
It’s really something of a miracle that they’re able to keep the film as engaging as they do with as little plot as they include, but you eventually get the feeling of just the kind of movie they were going for when they put this together. Llewyn is a struggling musician who is living life by the seat of his pants, and so that’s the kind of structure that the film is based around. Just like he never knows what’s coming next in his life, we never know what’s going to happen next, where he’ll end up or who he’s going to meet. So in a sense, you could say it’s as unpredictable as one of their zanier projects, but in a different fashion. Leave it to the Coen Bros. to create something sufficiently intriguing out of something so simple. 3/4 stars.
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